Leftovers: Love them but don’t leave them on the table

Around the holidays, food safety experts remind us to handle leftovers with care. When food sits too long in the “danger zone” – between 40 and 140 degrees F (4 to 60 degrees C) – bacteria can quickly multiply, causing nasty foodborne illnesses or food poisoning.

This holiday season, let’s keep family and friends safe at our dinner or buffet tables. Here are 8 food safety guidelines to keep in mind as you plan holiday dinners and parties:

1. During the meal, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Handle Holiday Leftovers with Care | CHEFS Mix
Food tastes better when served at optimal temperature. For buffet serving, use a warming tray or a bowl on ice to keep dishes fresh and appetizing.

2. Follow the 2-hour rule
Keep an eye on the clock when you begin serving meals or arranging food on a buffet table. As a rule of thumb, put leftovers away as soon as possible or within 2 hours of serving (1 hour during hot summer months).

3. Check refrigerator and freezer temperatures
Before you pack them with leftovers, check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer. Set the refrigerator temperature below 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) and set the freezer at or below 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C).

4. Cool hot food before storing
To cool hot food quickly, pack leftovers in shallow containers then place the containers in an ice bath. When the leftover food has cooled throughout, seal the containers and place them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Glass Food Storage | CHEFS Mix5. Use small, shallow food storage containers for faster cooling
Put leftovers in food storage containers with tight fitting lids. Don’t overfill – it’s better to divide large amounts into smaller, shallower containers that cool down and chill quickly and evenly. Place sealed containers directly in refrigerator or freezer. In the refrigerator, leave space around containers and food to allow cold air to circulate.

6. Enjoy leftovers soon
Sadly, your favorite leftovers won’t last forever. When stored properly in the refrigerator, most are good for 3 to 4 days. If you know you won’t eat a leftover within 3 or 4 days, freeze it instead.

7. Reheat leftovers to temperatureMeat Thermometers | CHEFS Catalog
When you reheat leftovers on the stovetop or in the oven or microwave, the internal food temperature should reach at least 165 degrees F (74 degrees C) throughout. Use a cooking thermometer to check the temperature. Heat leftover sauces, soups, gravies and stews to a rolling boil before serving. Slow cookers and chafing dishes may not get hot enough and, therefore, are not recommended for reheating leftovers.

8. When in doubt, throw it out.
When stored properly, most leftovers are good for 3 or 4 days. If you question the safety of something in the refrigerator, don’t trust your nose or taste buds. Bacteria don’t always change a food’s smell, taste or appearance, making it harder to tell if a leftover is safe to eat. Unsure if the last slice of ham is okay to eat? When in doubt, throw it out.

Need more information?

Check these websites for current information about food safety and food storage:


StillTasty.com features a free, easy to use online app. Enter the name of a specific food and see how long you can safely store it in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry. The site’s primary information sources include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Printer-friendly Food Storage Charts

if you want a quick food storage reference to keep with your cookbooks, here are two printer-friendly charts:

Better-Safe-Than-Sorry Food Storage Charts from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (July, 2011) – This well-organized document gives suggested storage times by storage method: pantry, refrigerator or freezer

Shelf Life Chart from Ziploc® – This chart gives refrigerator and freezer storage times for these perishables: eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, fish, deli products and meat/poultry leftovers.


FoodSafety.gov is a well-organized site that shares food safety information from government agencies including the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Topics include:

Meat and Poultry Roasting Times
Food Storage Times in the Refrigerator and Freezer
Food Safety Tips by Event and Season
Food Safety at a Glance – Printer-friendly Charts

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Food Safety and Inspection Service

Information at USDA.gov includes:

Food Storage, Preparation and Handling – Common Questions
Food Safety Education for Consumers

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